Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present
Amid both the gloom of the season and the recent uprisings in the Arab world, it is bracing to look back at the last thirty years or so and see how much has actually gone more or less well. The end of the cold war, the demise of communism, and the emergence of new democratic states of varying quality all represent important historical change. Most of the radical political and economic transformations of the last quarter-century, moreover, have been brought about with little or no bloodshed. The “velvet” revolution, based on civil resistance, organization, and negotiation, came into fashion. Much was owed to Mikhail Gorbachev.
What we now call “civil resistance” often takes the form of mass rallies and demonstrations, as in Prague in 1989 and Tehran in 2009. People also engage in strikes, boycotts, fasts, and refusals to obey the law. All these have been evident in the largely leaderless, but Internet-coordinated, overthrow of the government in Tunis and the mass protests in Cairo, whose outcomes probably won’t be clear for some time. Civil resistance usually cannot survive systematic and violent repression or a totalitarian police state, and it is still often suppressed by authoritarian governments and oligarchies. At least in the Arab world, this seems to be changing.
Modern nonviolent civil resistance has usually been associated with Mohandas K. Gandhi, who began his experiments with civil resistance to discrimination against Indians in South Africa in 1906 and moved to India to challenge the British administration of the Raj in 1915. Whatever the success or failure of his campaigns, Gandhi is the name most frequently invoked by nonviolent civil resistance movements, although I have seen little reference to him during the recent uprisings in the Middle East.
The Oxford University project on civil resistance was established in 2006. Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, edited by Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash, contains reports on different cases by nineteen members of this project. It is a highly informative compilation of differing quests for political, economic, and social change over the past half-century, most of them nonviolent. Successful or not, these efforts have contributed to a growing body of common wisdom about how civil resistance can work.
Civil resistance is seldom, if ever, a force that acts entirely on its own. As Adam Roberts explains, there is “a rich web of connections between civil resistance and other forms of power,” sometimes including force, violence, or the threat thereof. There is no set formula, although the methods used by successful civil resistance movements are carefully studied and sometimes emulated by succeeding movements. April Carter mentions that Gene Sharp, the author of The Politics of Nonviolent Action, has listed 198 methods of nonviolence. Be that as it may, the essential elements of successful nonviolent action, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King to Lech Wałesa, have been perceptive strategy, imaginative and canny leadership, organization, and popular support. Coverage of civil resistance by the press, the Internet, and television has played an increasingly important part in its success.
The basic rationale of civil resistance is that the power of rulers ultimately lies in the obedience and cooperation of their subjects. So far, at any rate, no one has found a reliable way of making civil resistance work in a totalitarian police state—as distinguished from the satellites of such states—although the current revolts in the Arab world may prove an exception to this rule. The American civil rights movement or the ultimately effective protests against the war in Vietnam could count on publicity and support in a working democracy. In Nazi Germany and the USSR, there were no such successes. Nor did the Tiananmen Square movement for reform in China in 1989 or the mass protests of Buddhist monks in Burma over increases in the price of food and fuel in 2007 survive forceful suppression. It was Gorbachev’s understanding of the need for change and reform and his refusal to use Soviet military force against demonstrations in the Eastern European satellites that made possible the spectacular changes of 1989. Indeed the willingness of leaders to retreat—Gorbachev, F.W. de Klerk in South Africa, or, more recently and surprisingly, Slobodan Milošević in Serbia—is crucial to the success of civil resistance movements. Current events in Tunisia and Egypt bear this out.
Gandhi, who articulated the idea of civil resistance as a “conscious option” for resisting injustice, had only a qualified success. In British imperial India, he had certain initial advantages that he exploited brilliantly. The British imperial regime was responsible to a democratic government at home; its rule rested on its relations with long-standing Indian institutions—civic, religious, military, and economic—that were the source of its strength.
Gandhi knew how to manipulate these basic features of the Raj and eventually undermined the Indian cooperation upon which British rule was based. His brilliant use of political theater with himself as the star secured widespread sympathy in the outside world and also inspired the Indian National Congress, which grew into a mass-based party that was capable of challenging the Raj and, by the end of World War II, of forming an independent government. Gandhi’s teaching and his philosophy of nonviolence and satyagraha (“truth force” or “soul force”) added a new element to India’s sense of identity and pride. It was these political and spiritual developments rather than civil resistance that finally made British rule impossible. The tragedy, which also led to Gandhi’s assassination, was that his movement was unable to prevent the horrors of Hindu–Muslim interreligious violence that accompanied Indian independence and partition.
Gandhi’s example and teaching were a basic inspiration for the United States civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From A. Philip Randolph’s threatened March on Washington in July 1940 to protest exclusionary hiring practices in defense industries to King’s successful actions of the 1960s, carefully planned and targeted, nonviolent, civil resistance was the essence of the movement’s operations.
Its strategy included inducing opponents to react brutally, thereby inviting sympathetic support from the press and public and thus encouraging the federal government to intervene on the side of law and order. King and the SCLC were masters of this technique. They selected Birmingham, Alabama, for their 1963 campaign, because the commissioner of public safety, “Bull” Connor, was a dependably violent racist hothead who could be relied upon to use dogs, cattle prods, and water cannons against peaceful demonstrators. Connor’s brutalities invited TV coverage that made him a national villain and sowed the seeds for President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In an ironic tribute, President Kennedy told King apropos of Connor, “in his own way, he has done a good deal for civil rights legislation this year.” Doug McAdam writes that with the passage of President Lyndon Johnson’s Voting Rights Act in August 1965, “the electoral underpinnings of the southern system were finally removed.” But civil resistance does not always lead to all of the desired results. As Johnson foresaw, the legislation that was a major gain for civil rights also resulted in Republican dominance in the formerly Democratic South. The vast demonstrations that successfully called for the departure of the Shah of Iran brought in a religious dictatorship that killed and tortured thousands of Iranians and is now determined to suppress the civil resistance movement that has risen to oppose it.
The civil rights movement undoubtedly profited from the post–World War II emphasis on global human rights, in which American leadership had been vital. Franklin Roosevelt, willing to trade off the issue of black civil rights in the US for support from Southern Democrats for the New Deal during the 1930s, had also been an outspoken champion of decolonization abroad. The domestic racism of the United States itself was a glaring repudiation of its international aims. It also made the United States an easy target for Soviet cold war propaganda. Such considerations stiffened the spine of the federal government in responding to the civil rights movement.
The US civil rights movement was studied by organizers of civil resistance movements in search of historic change elsewhere, especially in Eastern Europe. Events in Czechoslovakia and Poland, which in their turn became models for later struggles, offered new ideas on the method of civil resistance. In both cases earlier attempts had ended in failure, if not tragedy. In the 1968 drama that came to be known as the “Prague Spring,” a well-organized and widespread nonviolent popular movement under the leadership of Alexander Dubček demanded change and actually began the process of reform. The USSR refused to negotiate and on August 20, 1968, it invaded the country with four other Warsaw Pact allies. Dubček and his fellow reformers were arrested and taken to Moscow for “negotiations.”
Kieran Williams calls the Prague Spring “logistically so beautiful,” but shows how it was a political failure, resulting in an even more repressive government. In November 1989, the 1968 mass movement again coalesced. This time, with Gorbachev in power, there was no Soviet armed intervention, and the ensuing struggle against the Communist government was conducted by Václav Havel with style and great imagination from his theater headquarters and in rallies of steadily increasing size until the government resigned.
Poland was the first Communist-ruled country to make a peaceful, negotiated transition to multiparty democracy. This achievement and the method used provided a different model. Poland’s so-called “self- limiting revolution” took shape in the 1970s as a new strategy of peaceful opposition centering on the Solidarity movement, a strictly nonviolent alliance of workers, the intelligentsia, and the Roman Catholic Church, numbering some ten million members. Its initial aim was to expand civil liberties and human rights and to limit the Communist Party’s domination of society. It operated with deliberation and, as Aleksander Smolar puts it, “majestic self-restraint” under the leadership of Lech Wałesa. It successfully discouraged all ideas of a popular uprising as being almost certain to spawn another tyranny. Still, by 1980 the movement was seen by both the Polish authorities and Moscow to be a clear threat to the Communist system, and in December 1981, under strong Soviet pressure, the Polish prime minister, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, imposed martial law and suppressed Solidarity. Wałesa was interned and ten thousand opposition members imprisoned.
In 1985 Gorbachev came into power with radically new ideas about the desirability of change, a possibility encouraged by the 1975 Helsinki agreements that committed all its signatory governments, at least in theory, to respect human rights. The charismatic Polish pope, John Paul II, provided, in his own unique way, very public support for freedom and human rights. Solidarity was biding its time. In 1988 a rash of strikes was a final warning, and in 1989 amnesty for the Solidarity prisoners opened the way for roundtable talks with the government. The Solidarity leaders had always been realistic about the necessity for compromise.